Nina Simone was a great singer, but also much more. Her voice became attached to the civil rights movement in the United States, much as the image of Martin Luther King, Jr. was a symbol of protest. Many critics associated her closely with Billie Holliday, which Nina felt to be an insult, as Billie was a drug addict more than a singer.
She was trained as a classical pianist, and her playing is infused with the Bach of her childhood; her youth spent in church tinges her sound with traces of gospel. Though she didn't begin to sing until after she'd developed her skills as a pianist, her voice demonstrates these influences as well, mirroring her playing. When Simone sings the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," its dreadful sadness and enormous ecstasy make it seem like it could never have been anyone else's song. Beneath the complex layers of her voice and her playing are longing, loss and happiness laid bare. As Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins has said, "I mostly listen to Nina Simone when I am feeling raw. The more I feel raw, the more I relate to her."
In her 1991 autobiography, "I Put a Spell on You," she discusses how the term was simply a box critics put all black performers in. "Calling me a jazz singer was a way of ignoring my musical background because I didn't fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be," she writes. "It was a racist thing." Simone eventually became a "jazz-and-something-else singer" in the press, but, she says, she identified mostly as a folk singer. There was more of a folk-and-blues foundation than jazz in her playing.
A teacher of mine, whose uncle dated Simone, saw her at the Village Vanguard with his father during the early '60s. He told me that before she began to sing, she asked if there were any black people in the audience. Only he and his father stood up, somewhat uncomfortably, and Simone said, "I'm singing only to you. I don't care about the others." It was a time when such a remark made the white audience clap madly.
Nina Simone: 1933-2003, Dead at Age 70